Born in north Winnipeg in 1947, Burton Cummings grew up with music in his household, tinkling the keys of a friend’s family’s piano for the first time when he was only a child. By 14 he was fronting his first band, The Deverons. Flavoured with the British pop sounds on the airwaves, the quintet soon became one of the hottest commodities doing the local school dance and the like circuit. They’d already released 4 ’45’s with producer Daryl Burlingham when, less than a month after turning 18, he replaced the recently departed Bob Ashley in Chad Allan & The Expressions. Frontman Chad Allan left shortly after as well, leaving Cummings with Randy Bachman, Gary Peterssen and Jim Kale. The band would adopt their nickname of The Guess Who and become one of Canada’s greatest success stories.
Bachman left following the AMERICAN WOMAN album in 1970, but Cummings carried on with The Guess Who for another five years, going through a number of guitarists, including Greg Leskiw, Kurt Winter and Domenic Troiano, but still pumped out the gold hits, including “Running Back To Saskatoon”, “Orly”, “Albert Flasher” and “Clap For The Wolfman”, an ode to the late Wofman Jack. Though The Guess Who name carried on after Kale secured the rights to it, it was evident their time had passed, with the exception of the reunion tour here and there.
Cummings released his first solo record in the fall of 1976 on CBS Records. Now in complete control of his career, he quickly made his mark as a solo artist. A basic piano-driven pop sound with a predominantly laid back feel, the singles “Stand Tall” and “I’m Scared” pushed the self-titled debut gold (50, 000 copies in Canada). Other noteable mentions included the cover of Ray Charles’ “That’s Enough”, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Nothing Rhymed” and his version of BTO‘s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”. Cummings was honoured with two Junos that year, single of the year for “Stand Tall” as well as album of the year. He took up residence full time in LA that year and also contributed to other projects by Bette Midler, Leo Sayer … and also Randy Bachman, apparently mending the wounds caused from his leaving The Guess Who.
MY OWN WAY TO ROCK came out the next year and backed by such hard-driving piano classics as the title track and “Charlemagne”, as well as the ballad “A Song For Him”, the record quickly turned gold. Other noteable tracks included a cover of Bob Seger’s “Come On By” and “Never Had A Lady Before”. Also included on the album was “Got To Find Another Way”, a track co-written by Randy Bachman in 1970 that never made it to a Guess Who lp. With a harder edge than its predecessor, MY OWN WAY TO ROCK showcased Cummings’ ability to turn out classics with the heaviest beat since the early 70’s with The Guess Who, and is widely considered his best solo work.
DREAM OF A CHILD was released in ’79 and contained his broadest-based record so far. The list of special guest appearances read literally like a ‘who’s who’ of rock and roll. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Jeff Porcaro, Becky Lopez, Bill Payne and Randy Bachman all contributed. With covers of Bobby Darin’s “Wait By The Water”, two Motown classics – “When A Man Loves A Woman”, made famous by Percy Sledge, and Sam and Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming”, and the jazz classic “Shiny Stockings,” Cummings displayed his musical influences and turned it into a platinum-selling project. The country cross-over hit “Break It To Them Gently”, his biggest solo single ever was actually inspired by an episode of Kojak he’d watched earlier the night of writing it. The ballads “Takes A Fool To Love A Fool”, “I Will Play Rhapsody” and the remake of The Guess Who‘s “Guns Guns Guns” helped the record become his biggest selling album of all time. The fact he was the only Canadian act to headline at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition further demonstrated his prominance in the domestic music scene. Portions of the tour were recorded, with the intention of releasing a double live album. But unsatisfied with the overall finished product, the entire project was shelved. The lone exception to that was a live version of “Charlemagne” which made the b-side of “Draggin’ ‘Em Down The Line.”
WOMAN LOVE came out a year later and had the hit “Fine State Of Affairs”. Other singles included “Mile A Second” and the title track. Though it still went gold and was solidly produced from start to finish, the record is considered one of his weaker efforts by many, failing to live up to its predecessor. Interest from the buying public was waning as well, giving way to the sometimes horrible new-wave sound which dominated the ’80’s. THE BEST OF BURTON CUMMINGS came out later that year and featured tracks from his four solo records as well as a live versions of “Orly” and “Draggin’ ‘Em Down The Line” from the scrapped live album project.
His next venture was the self-produced SWEET SWEET the summer of ’81, spawning the hit “You Saved My Soul” and the singles “Mother Keep Your Daughter In” and “Bad News”. The album was actually part of the soundtrack to the Canadian Indie movie ‘Melanie’, for which “You Saved My Soul” served as the main theme song. Playing a washed-up rock star who finds inspiration in new love, the movie also featured a cameo by Guess Who-mate Gary Peterson.
In 1983, Cummings reunited with Bachman, Peterson and Kale to do a mini-tour across Canada they called ‘the twilight zone tour’. The first new tracks in over a decade by the four hit the airwaves as well as one of the first concerts on the then-new specialty tv channels. “Let’s Watch The Sun Go Down”, “C’mon and Dance”, “What’s Gonna Happen To The Kids” and “Creepin Peepin Baby Blues” treated the world to another example of Cummings and company being ahead of their time, the supergroup reunion. They released the Toronto show on video and record called TOGETHER AGAIN, but it wasn’t long before old problems resurfaced and the band was broken up again.
HEART, his next solo venture, was released the next summer , but unfortunately a lack of support from CBS was evidenced by not even a single being released. He returned with PLUS SIGNS almost 6 years later in 1990. Though he was obviously playing to a narrower crowd than the better part of a decade before, it was widely heralded as one of the year’s sleeper hits. Backed by a national tour which took him back to his roots playing the smaller venues and towns across the country, “Creepin’ Peepin’ Baby Blues” (first performed during the ’83 reunion), “One Day Soon”, “Take One Away”, “Free” and “The Rock’s Steady” showcased his wide array of influences and showed the world one of Canada’s greatest exports was back. Curiously though, he wasn’t. He again dropped out of sight shortly thereafter, preferring to stay in the background doing session work. A retrospective called THE BURTON CUMMINGS COLLECTION was put out in ’96 on Rhino Records and highlighted his career, containing some of his greatest works as well as some remixes and previously unreleased material.
1996’s UP CLOSE AND ALONE was the next we heard of Burton. An intimate interaction with the crowd at Toronto’s Glen Gould Theatre, the record was him and his piano … that’s all. With simple interpretations of solo classics as well as some tracks recorded with The Guess Who, UP CLOSE AND ALONE was easily one of the year’s most under-rated records, even though it was certified gold in only a few months. After a series of packed North American dates without a backup band, he again slipped out of the foreground, retreating to the seclusion of his California home. He reunited with his Guess Who buddies again in 1998 to help raise funds for the Red River flood victims.
In 1999, the remastered version of MY OWN WAY TO ROCK was released, which also included a live version of “Charlemagne” taken from the scrapped live project. The song featured revised lyrics and poked fun at Las Vegas and Freddie Mercury..The world was ecstatic when it was announced that same year that The Guess Who would get back together for the occasion of the Pan Am Games, held in Winnipeg. The inevitable dream reunion was realized shortly thereafter, when Cummings announced he would be joining Bachman, Peterson, Bill Wallace and Don MacDougall in a full-fledged Guess Who reunion. This incidentally, was the first time this version of the band had played together. They toured the continent, and as expected, played to sold-out shows wherever they were. The reviews given the band were electric – possibly Canada’s greatest contribution to the rock world was back – better than ever. In 2000, just in time for the Christmas rush, the band released RUNNING THROUGH CANADA, a double live album featuring excerpts from the tour.
In 2002 new-country star Gil Grand had a hit with a remake of “Break It To Them Gently”. Burton meanwhile had again drifted back into the shadows, coming out now and then for other projects, including participating on Danielle French‘s 2003 release PIECE. Still scrapping with Kale over the name of The Guess Who, Cummings and Bachman released THE CUMMINGS/BACHMAN SONGBOOK in 2006, a retrospective of their individual and collective recording careers, and began a series of North American gigs with The Carpet Frogs backing them up to promote it.
A year later the duo released JUKEBOX, a collection of covers that inspired the two to get into the world of show business over 40 years earlier but touring was limited, as Bachman was having shoulder surgery occupying his time. The time off gave Cummings a chance to record and release his first new solo album in 13 years. ABOVE THE GROUND was released in late 2008, and featured the killer track “We Just Came Back From The USA,” the title track and “Kurt’s Song,” in memory of his now deceased Guess Who-mate Kurt Winter.